The Crux of Gender Lens Investing

Villgro Philippines
6 min readMay 11, 2023

Nicole Paterno shares her experiences as a mother, an entrepreneur, and a gender lens investment facilitator and the intersectionality that underlines gender and access to finance.

In June 2018 it was a surprise and a privilege to have been invited to a two-day workshop by Criterion Institute. There I met the wonderful Joy Anderson and her team educating us on Gender Lens Investing (GLI) with former SheEO, now Coralus, founder Vicki Saunders, who introduced us to the opportunity of activating a SheEO chapter in the Philippines.

As intriguing as it is, GLI surfaced the realities the finance and investment space have been and are currently struggling with bias. From where I stand, it seemed like a timely response to the #MeToo movement breaking news of abusive and harassing cultures towards women across industries and contexts in 2017.

Gender Lens Investing (GLI) as defined by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) is a strategy or approach to investing that takes into consideration gender-based factors across the investment process to advance gender equality and better-informed investment decisions. https://thegiin.org/gender-lens-investing-initiative/

In angel investing and venture building, both of which require sourcing deals and funding, I was at the delivering and receiving ends of the numerous daily conversations of building a product and a service as a female enabler.

Nicole and her son at Upscale Innovation Hub

Looking actively into deal flows, there was no disparity between male and female founders. Each brought their strengths and struggles to the table. From a husband and wife seeing the opportunity of providing online reviews for board and licensure exams, to a man wanting to scale the way how uniforms were produced for different market segments, to a woman intending to mainstream traditional hilot into the spa and wellness market, to a team of sisters (one who is deaf) developing a safety wearable for deaf girls as they go out in public commuting.

In developing more angels to fill in that funding gap for early-stage ventures, most of my audience was men with a smattering of women here and there as we roamed around and conducted our quarterly pitch days and bi-monthly investor education sessions. My resource persons for investor education sessions and featured founders on our exciting pitch days were men. And for some reason, it did not bother me nor was it an issue. The team and I looked at our deals with no bias. We were driven to help and solve the disconnects of a nascent startup and innovation ecosystem. We also were disrupting approaches to suit more our local context, coming to terms with the biting realities for both Filipino entrepreneurs and investors.

It was not daunting as I am used to being the sole female or part of the minority in a male-dominated group. Being a woman and a mother was never a liability that consumed my mindset as I set myself to work internally and externally. I wore these on my sleeves as it allowed me to see right into their thought processes and dynamics. My encounters with them would range from high energy, pleasant takeaways to majorly bummed out yet polite exits reeking of condescension.

In spite of the latter, I have always told myself to hold my head high. Those circumstances were sooner or later replaced by better male characters and personalities showing how they could nurture and buoy me up.

I was of the mind and the decision to prove that I can have both — being a career woman and a mother — all simultaneously with no mother’s helper, dealing with the tugs from opposite ends of priority/ies and sanity on a daily basis. From doing business development for a drone startup and establishing traction for one of the early angel networks in the 2010s, I always brought my son with me. I was fueled to challenge the status quo. I realized that the startup space was open, welcoming, and accommodating. My son and the community grew with each other.

Nicole dons many hats - mom, impact ecosystem player, and a startup enabler

Parenthood/ motherhood is a new ballgame itself. When that hits women, we are faced with the decision of whether or not to give up and stay home instead of really trying to have it all. How much is it also different for single parents? Married couples who are dual-income earners? Adoptive parents? Why should women be mainly targeted and be left feeling the brunt of it all?

Nicole and her son with Priya Thachadi (Co-founder, Villgro Philippines) on the day she joined the team

When “The Intern” was released in cinemas, I naturally gravitated to the plot. It was me. In that scene where Anne Hathaway dropped off her daughter at school and she received scorn from her fellow mothers because she opted to pursue her startup and have her husband become a house-band, she was ostracized and discriminated against by her own tribe.

As Anne Hathaway’s character Jules deals with that from her female co-parents, her VCs and investors don’t think she can hack the job of being a CEO given her role as a wife and a mother. They highly suggested and even pressured her that a better male CEO take over the reins of her startup while she remains acknowledged as the founder albeit no longer involved in the operations and management of her company.

What am I driving at? GLI is not a tool to condemn men. Investing in women and girls is not about negatively affecting men and boys or leaving them out. However, gender inequality has been ignored for so long that there is value in putting this in the spotlight now.

Our society struggles with prejudice every day because of how we are raised and the environments we are exposed to. To bring down barriers we have to educate ourselves and allow ourselves to be analytical and critical of conditions. We tend to live, work and interact in homogenous bubbles. But the world is not built that way.

The default mindset with the investment play is the outright returns at the soonest possible time. But for some, it takes a while for it to be harvested. And sometimes we need to take our eyes off the horse and focus on the jockey regardless of gender and orientation.

Integrating gender analysis, investment analysis, and decision-making should not only be applied in women-owned or led enterprises, or in products and services aimed to improve the lives of women and girls. Equally important is making investments in enterprises promoting gender equality in the workplace.

GLI should not be prescribed as a technical and one-size-fits-all approach in the investment process but should lead to a broader organizational realignment and gender mainstreaming in supporting gender-forward businesses and advancing the agenda on gender diversity in investment firms.

At some point, rather than being special or the exception, GLI should be the norm and the standard that is able to recognize the different stages a woman has to undergo (it would be akin to underwear catering to the different body changes in a woman’s life.) We also need to acknowledge the struggles of other under-represented founders (e.g., LGBTQ+, PWDs, indigenous peoples/ IPs, etc.) working to create solutions that meet the needs of a market segment they belong to — and these should be a part of the way GLI analyzes and decides in enabling businesses.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need to make gender lens investing more robust, more empathetic, and more discerning. Ensure that those who — regardless of man or woman — apply this approach can uphold the values and principles it stands for. While GLI is and seems like a novelty right now, at some point it needs to be a standard and a regular practice.

About the Author

Nicole Paterno is the Head of Impact Investments and Program Manager for Impact Pioneers Network at Villgro Philippines. A busy mom and a passionate GLI advocate, Nicole is deeply involved in creating a level playing field for women entrepreneurs in the Philippines.

Connect with Nicole at nicole.paterno@villgrophilippines.org

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Villgro Philippines

We take a chance on the heroes of tomorrow. We fund, mentor, and incubate early stage social impact entrepreneurs. www.villgrophilippines.org